Monday, January 12, 2009

Just Zoo It

We’ve been hitting up the Jacksonville Zoo a lot lately. The annual pass was pretty reasonable and gets you in to zoos all over the country, so we got one. Even sprung for the family plus 2 more pass. Well, gramma paid for it (thanks, mom!) and we got 10% off for being military, too.

As for the zoo itself, it’s not large or particularly fancy, but nice and enjoyable and very kid-friendly. Here’re some of the highlights:

The Train- Regular price is $4 for adults, $2 for kids (members get a discount), those under 3 are free, and you can ride all day. Occasionally a local company will sponsor a weekend and the rides will be $1. As Nicholas is insane for anything train related, we usually pony up just to keep him quiet (and he’s free for another week). The ride is decent, though, and while most of it doesn’t give you great views of the animals, the facts they give during the ride are pretty cool. (Cheetahs, not being from the genus panthera are the only big cats who don't roar, and the only ones who purr. Also, their claws do not retract.) The drivers know all the animals by name and some of their history and facts which makes for a different ride every time based on which rhinos and giraffes and elephants, etc., are within sight. Of course, they may be pulling it out of their wazoos since I can’t tell one giraffe from another. The train makes 2 stops on either end of the park which can be nice for tired little feet. Strollers are allowed on board.

Food- there are two restaurants- one on the far end by the Australia area (and the train station) which serves burgers, fries, and chicken fingers (my dad got a corndog and reveled in the fact that they deep-fried it when he ordered- blech!), and a more Latin themed cafĂ© in the Latin America area. We have more experience with the latter since the kids are in love with the popcorn shrimp they serve. My mom gave a big thumbs’ up to their tortilla soup, and their fries are almost identical to KFC’s. Kids' meals are available, but we usually go cheap and get them all popcorn shrimp and fries and drinks to split. It generally costs us about $30 to feed everyone (2 adults, 5 small kids). You also get a nice window view to one of the jaguar enclosures. (One of the males likes to pace and mark his territory - very appetizing.) There are also several stands for ice cream and drinks and frozen lemonade scattered around the park, and a small snack bar right by the main entrance.

Feed the Animals- There are several places when you can feed the animals for a few extra bucks. The new Stingray Bay (which we haven’t done yet) offers the standard reach-in-and-touch experience. Discount for members, but it’s only open Fri-Sun until March, and food is an extra $1. I’m sure we’ll do it soon. Other opportunities include the giraffes where for $2 you get lettuce, bamboo, or something else yummy to feed them. (Did you know giraffes have 7 giant vertebrae in their necks- the same number as humans?) They will let you split up the food between kids, which is good for a cheapskate like me. My favorites are the lorikeets in the Australia area. For $1 you get a little cup of nectar to feed these beautiful rainbow-plumed birds. Some of the braver ones will climb on your hands and are very gentle. By the end of the day they aren’t so hungry, though, so best to do it early.

The Carousel- The classic wallet gouger at $2 a pop. Cheaper in the winter, though, and the first time we were there we had such a large group (5 adults and 12 kids between us) that they discounted us even more. They also have a still one for photo posing.


Play Park- This place is awesome! There’s one way in and out, but unfortunately you can’t see it from any convenient place. It splits off into several paths winding through hedges nestled with a dinosaur dig sandbox, Native American house-building niche, sitting areas, climbing wall, and a (fast!) slide. Several large open areas include a huge tree-house, squirrel monkey exhibit (complete with climbing ropes for your own monkeys), pygmy goat petting, hedge maze, and a splash pool. The splash pool looks like a lot of fun, but it’s been closed for the cooler weather. It also has lots of tables nearby and restrooms and drinking fountains.

Other cool things are scattered animal statues suitable for climbing all over (careful! they get hot in the Florida sun!), and of course the animals themselves. People often ignore the "local" exhibit in favor of more exotic animals, but the native Wild Florida section is well worth the time with red wolves, black bears, cougars, and of course gators. There's even a huge pier out onto the Trout River and some stuff in conjunction with it, but I'm not crazy enough to venture out on it with kids who are constantly bouncing off of each other.

In honor of the local pro football team, the Latin section has the largest collection of jaguars of any zoo in the world (7, including a rare black one) with 3 more soon to be acquired. There are also large garden sections which attract migrating butterflies, and you can visit the on-site animal hospital and watch any action (including surgeries!) through picture windows. Regularly scheduled animal keeper talks provide more info and hands-on experiences. A lot of the zoo's simple maintenance and displays are done by volunteers and kids in their summer day camps (don't worry- they are trimming bamboo, not shoveling elephant poo).

They have a large collection of primates from pygmy marmosets to gorillas and the wide variety in between. Most of them are pretty active and entertaining, as in Florida the climate is mild enough to keep them outside and not in a monkey house. With the chimpanzees are some apes called bonobos which are very similar (but uglier) and apparently very rare and endangered. Another special exhibit is "Save the Frogs" which was a little disappointing in size and info.

The zoo’s map leaves a little to be desired, however; you can get a little lost on the paths that branch from the main thoroughfare. Also you have to exit through the gift shop unless you have a double wide monster truck stroller, then they just let you out the easy way.

Otherwise, it's a blast and the kids can never wait long to go back!